Donna Reed's Legacy

Celebrities, Iconic Communities, On the Road, People
on March 18, 2001

Bold letters on a huge water tower proclaim Its a Wonderful Life! but this isnt Bedford Falls, and theres no angel named Clarence to rescue misguided souls. Its Denison, Iowa, (pop. 6,700) where down-to-earth volunteers are working with Hollywood professionals to create a lasting legacy to the performing arts in remembrance of actress Donna Reed.

The blue-collar community in west-central Iowa was the beloved hometown of Reed, whose most enduring role was playing the wife of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) in the 1946 Christmas classic Its a Wonderful Life.

Today, Denison is headquarters of the Donna Reed Foundation, a nonprofit organization that hosts annual workshops for students of the performing arts, awards scholarships to budding actors, dancers, musicians, and is renovating the towns historic opera house.

Last June, more than 500 participants from across the country attended the weeklong Donna Reed Festival in which 40 screen and theater professionals presented 75 workshops on topics ranging from auditioning to modeling and songwriting to cinematography.

Among the celebrities donating their time were Mad About You director Gordon Hunt, Mr. Ed star Alan Young, plus other nationally known composers, choreographers, and screenwriters. Workshop participants, ages 6 to 86, paid from $5 to $150 for workshops, which included introductory and advanced sessions, as well as individual coaching.

The festival is a tribute to Reed, born Donnabelle Mullenger in 1921. At 16, she left Denison for Los Angeles to pursue her acting dream. In 1954, she won an Oscar for her performance in From Here to Eternity, and in 1958 she began an eight-year stint on The Donna Reed Show. As the mother in the popular television sitcom, she was a nurturer onscreen and off, influencing the real lives of her TV childrenShelley Fabares, best known for her leading role in Coach, and Paul Petersen, now an author. Both have been instrumental in developing the foundation and annual festival.

Established in 1987, a year after Reeds death, the foundation was started by her husband, Grover Asmus, Fabares, actress Norma Connolly of General Hospital, and some dedicated Denison residents. The first year, 13 workshops were held in the downtown theater and church basements.

At first it was hard to get presenters to come here, says Bill Wright, school superintendent and foundation board member. Not anymore. Its like summer camp for them.

Some 400 local volunteers make out-of-town guests feel welcome, shuttling presenters to and from the Omaha, Neb., airport, housing workshop attendees, and generally pitching in to make the event run smoothly.

The foundation boasts one of the nations largest performing arts scholarship programs, in which high school seniors compete in five divisions: acting, dance, instrumental, musical theater, and vocal. In 2000, $27,500 in scholarships funded by local businesses and individuals went to local, state, and national winners. In the festivals grand finale, 15 students, vying for five $4,000 scholarships, competed before judges and a live audience.

Mary Ann Buzbee of Denison won two $500 scholarships for musical theater and acting. Her career goal is to teach performance.

Another foundation effortsaving the historic Ritz Theatre and adjacent old-time soda shop from the wrecking ballhas helped revitalize downtown. With much of the work completed, the re-named Donna Reed Theatre for the Performing Arts is open daily with either film or live productions. The next development phase will include a museum, film archive, and professional studio.

If one person captures the spirit of Denison during the festival, its foundation board member and webmaster John Fujii. Each year the software engineer drives to Denison from Fort Collins, Colo. Having grown up in big cities, he was intrigued by a festival commercial aired during a weeklong Donna-thon in 1990. He showed up and asked how he could help.

This experience has totally opened my eyes to what people can do.